Friday, April 28, 2006

How to be Popular in High School

Okay, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t exactly Prom King or Class President when I was in high school. I was more the quiz-team-and-chess-club quiet type, especially during my first two years. Oh, but I longed to be popular. I’d go to school dances and stand in some dark corner, secretly wishing to be slow-dance-necking with a cheerleader. I’d sit in the stands on Friday night football games and dream I was down there on the field, throwing touchdown passes and getting my name and picture on the front page of every Saturday paper in the fall.

My junior year, I decided to do something about it. I had about all the athletic ability of a watermelon, so the tried-and-true route to popularity in small town Ohio was definitely out. I began seeking alternate paths. I signed up for choir, joined more clubs, and got a part in the drama club’s fall play. What I lacked in athleticism and preppiness, I made up for in the shear quantity of my school activity involvement. By my senior year I was newspaper editor, president of a service club, and elected onto the student council. Still not exactly Prom King or quarterback, but it was a long way from the pimply freshman who didn't even know what table to sit at for lunch on the first day of high school.

It sure was a lot of work, though. I had fun, but along the way, some interests that were quite important to me but not so popular with my growing circle of high school friends got pushed aside. Ten years later, I finally discovered the secret of how to be popular in high school without even trying. It’s really quite simple for an American. All you have to do is graduate from college, move to Japan, and get a job teaching English at a Japanese high school. I finally completed that last step this month, and let me tell you, I’ve never been so popular in all my life!

The first day of classes at Hokusei High was Wednesday, April 12th. I found that I couldn’t take two steps in the halls without a dozen students yelling “hello” to me at the top of their lungs. Some of the girls are pretty shy and won’t initiate conversation, but if I speak to them, they quickly respond and then bust out giggling as soon as I’ve passed. More often than not, if I look over my shoulder in a crowded hallway or classroom, I’ll catch wandering eyes stealing a glance or even a stare.

I’ve found that I can even tell a joke here. Golden Week, a week-long holiday in Japan is next week, so we were discussing everyone’s plans in my Oral Communication classes this week. After telling one class about my plans, I moved on to a short listening exercise. I read a simple conversation of eight lines between myself and another teacher. The students had the same conversation on their worksheets, but missing six words. They had to listen and fill in the blanks with the correct words.

I made my first reading at a normal speed, just like I was talking to another native speaker. Maybe even a little bit faster. As I expected, this produced 13 silent, bewildered stares from my 13 students.

“Okay?” I asked the class confidently.

The stares continued. I think a couple of students may have even tried to look more bewildered, if that were possible. Finally, one girl in the back tentatively raised a hand.

“Again?” she pleaded in a small voice.

“Okay,” I agreed. “Faster or slower?”

A couple of her classmates joined in entreating “slower, slower!”

“Okay. Is everyone ready?” Scattered nodding. “H-h-e-e-e-y-y-y S-c-c-o-o-o-t-t-t-t, w-w-h-h-a-a-a-a-t-t a-a-r-r-r-e-e y-y-o-o-o-u-u-r-r-r p-p-l-l-a-a-a-n-n-s-s-s…” By this point, several students were giggling.

“Too slow?” I asked with a grin.

Another girl looked at me warily. “American joke?” she asked.

“Yes, yes,” I smiled, “American joke!” The whole class burst out in wild laughter.

It’s not always that easy, though. With another class, I tried “The Handshake Game,” a simple (or so I thought) game where the class sits in a circle. I turn to my right, shake the student’s hand and state, “This is a handshake.”

The student is supposed to ask, “A what?”

To which I repeat, “A handshake.”

The student then turns to the next person and repeats. After a couple more exchanges, I introduce a new gesture, like a high-five, a smile, or a wink. Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen. It took several minutes to explain the basic premise of the game, with several confused looks and pleads of “wakkanai” (I don’t understand) from the girl sitting beside me. We eventually managed to pass a handshake around the circle a couple of times, then I moved onto to high five.


“Low!” I held my hand close to the floor.

“High!” I held my hand above my head.

“One, two, three, four, FIVE!” I counted on my fingers.


Look of deepest contemplation.

“Low! High! One, two, three four, five! Highfive!”

The lightbulb goes on and we give it a try. Halfway around the circle, another girl turned to the boy beside her and declared, “This is a five hand!”

I gave my forehead a hard “high five” with my right hand.

A couple days later, though, one of the boys asked me when we were going to play the handshake game again. “Next week,” I promised. That time, we got four different gestures all the way around the circle in a little over two minutes.

I’m lucky that I’m so popular by my very nature, and luckier still that I’m I didn’t grow up here as a shy, intellectual boy secretly dreaming of popularity. In a Japanese high school, my method for gaining popularity would have never worked. At the end of the first day of classes, I went to a student body assembly where all the high school clubs and sports teams demonstrated their activities for the entering class of first-year students (sophomores). Each club and team was assembled in the rear of the gym, where they sat together until it was time for their demonstration. As the presentation continued, I began to notice that no students were moving from one club or sports team to another. The students here are involved in one club, and one club only.

But what if you like both art and karate? Pick one (and only one). Want to be a multi-sport athlete? Forget it. Ever wondered what goes on in an English club meeting? If you’re in the badminton club (or any other club, for that matter), you’ll just have to keep wondering. The promotion of broad, diverse interests has no place in a society still intent on producing the kind of specialized factory workers that brought the world Toyotas and Hondas that run for 200,000 miles and more.

I know what you might be thinking now. “But Scott,” you’re thinking, “soccer season only lasts a couple of months. Can’t those kids do something else for the rest of the year?” Ah, if only that were the case. But no, in Japan, soccer is a year-round sport. All of them are. One of the English teachers at Hokusei is also coach of the soccer club, which won the Hokkaido tournament last year.

“How often do the kids practice?” I asked him.

“Oh, every day!” My question seemed to surprise him.

“And how often do they have games?” I continued, undeterred.

“Three big tournaments every year, plus training games.”

“How many training games?”

“About a hundred.” That’s two games a week. Every week.

During the drive to Ikeda to ride the Chihoku Line, I had discussed with Dustin and Judy the “otaku” phenomenon in Japan. “Otaku” is one of those words that doesn't quite have a direct English translation, but “freak” is a relatively close approximation. As a rail-enthusiast, I could be considered a “densha otaku” in Japanese. “Train freak.” However, it would seem my passion might be a little low key by Japanese standards. There are many different kinds of “otaku,” and almost all of them spend nearly every free minute of their adult lives dedicated to the pursuit of one interest, and one interest only. Dustin and Judy told me of artists who might spent 30 years perfecting a single sculpture of Buddha, of gardeners who spend a lifetime meticulously arranging the stones and pruning the trees of their tiny gardens. How such specialized, lifelong interests could arise suddenly made sense during the high school club presentations.

To the English teacher, such thinking producers a real challenge. Students become such a part of their activity, and their activity becomes such a part of them, that they have trouble describing it. Think of your commute to work everyday. The first few times, maybe you noticed the faces of the kids walking on the sidewalk, the gaudy billboard beside the road, the boarded up restaurant halfway between your home and your office. But make that commute everyday for a year, for five years, for 10 years, and then let me ask you about your commute. I bet you’d tell me that it takes 25 minutes, maybe the route number, and not one thing more. Such is the response I get from asking students about their club activities.

“Kana, do you play any sports?”

“Yes! I’m in the tennis club.”

If I wait to hear more, I might as well be waiting to hear from a turnip. There is nothing more. Kana has probably played tennis for half her life. She practices everyday, and goes to four big tournaments every year. But there’s no reason for her to tell me any of this. It’s so much a part of her life that she takes the details for granted. Furthermore, as was explained by Terry, the other native English teacher at Hokusei, the structure of tennis club is the same for every other high school student in Japan as it is for Kana. If Kana goes to four tournaments every year, you can bet that every other high school tennis club member in Japan goes to four tournaments every year. If Kana has practice at 3:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 4:15 on Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s a decent bet that most other high school tennis club in Japan practice at about those same times. There is absolutely no reason for Kana to divulge the details of her tennis club involvement, since everyone else in Japan already know the details of tennis club.

It doesn’t stop there. The second lesson for my second year (junior) classes was about family. First question: Who do you live with? The majority of the students in both classes answered simply, “I live with my family.” Only with continued prodding did I get any details, but then they ranged from “my mother and my father” to “my mother, grandmother, and younger sister,” to “my mother, my father, my two younger sisters and my two older brothers.” I didn’t stop there. Like the miner seeing the first flash of something shiny at the end of a dark tunnel, I kept digging. “Your mother and father, what are their names?” Looks of horror greet me. “What are their names?” Finally the answers come, slowly and timidly. Discovering their occupations takes every bit as much effort, and I’m exhausted at the end of class.

My mother, who’s been an elementary school teacher since before I was born, often tells me that she feels like a full-time cheerleader in class everyday. I’m finally beginning to understand that, and sometimes the fatigue, combined with my coming from such a different background, causes slips in the classroom. I caught myself a little too late when I suggested to one class that they include in their descriptions of a family member the color of that person’s hair. Not so many options for that here.

Yet the stories are so different, and beneath the matching uniforms and identical schedules, my students are as unique and different as any other group of 16 year olds anywhere in the world, and that individuality shines out in their faces, in their hair styles, in their colorful shoe laces, designer pencil cases, cell phone ornaments, and nearly every place else it’s given the opportunity to do so.

“Marina, where did you go for spring vacation?” I asked a cute second-year girl in the front row of one class.

“I went to Otaru,” she answered in a quiet, sweet voice.

“Oh, Otaru is very beautiful! How did you go there?”

“I went by train.”

“I like that train ride! I enjoy looking at the ocean.”

“Me, too!” she beamed at the connection we shared.

Maybe that’s why I’m so popular here. I’m so obviously different from everyone else, yet there are still things we have in common. I think for the students, behind their shyness and downcast eyes, they are incredibly excited to see someone so different from them, and even more excited at the prospect of having something in common with me.

Friday, April 14, 2006

In a Galaxy Fading Away

Hokkaido will lose 140 kilometers of railway this month. On April 20th, the Hokkaido Chihoku Highland Railway will make its last runs, ending 95 years of rail service to many rural communities, small towns and agricultural valleys of eastern Hokkaido.

The north-south oriented line was completed in 1911, making it among Hokkaido’s first railways. At the time it was a mainline linking Ikeda, a city near the Pacific coast, with Abashiri, across the island on the Sea of Okhotsk. Twenty-one years later, in 1932, a new, more direct line was completed between Abashiri and the more populous western part of Hokkaido. That leads me to believe that the Chihoku line between Ikeda and Kitami lost a great deal of its importance as a trunk line. It retained, however, significant importance as a feeder route, serving rich timber- and farmlands. Signs outside the town of Honbetsu proclaim it to be Japan’s number one bean producer. There’s even a small shrine dedicated to that crop beside one of the railway stations.

With time, however, the freight business either dried up or shifted to trucks, leaving only the patronage of a small population base to support the railway. In 1989, JR Hokkaido sold off the Chihoku line, creating the Hokkaido Chihoku Highland Railway. The new operator took significant measures to improve service and cut financial losses, immediately increasing train frequency by 40%, while acquiring newer, more cost effective equipment and further reducing operating costs by eliminating on-board conductors. The operator also brought the line a facelift, adopting the “Galaxy Railway” nickname and decorating its stations in stars and Zodiac signs, while applying festive, cartoon paintschemes to some of its trains. Service continued to improve, including a daily express that cut travel time between Kitami and Ikeda by over 45 minutes and provided direct service across JR tracks to Obihiro.

Improved service and image can only go so far, though. The fact remains that the Chihoku line traverses very sparsely populated countryside. There is a Japanese website ranking the 200 most remote, off-the-beaten-path railway stations (hikyoh eki) in the country. Of the 33 stations on the Chihoku Line, eight make the list, including four that rank in the top 30.

Ridership remained low. In 1998, the line averaged only 361 passengers per day per kilometer, ranking it last out of all rural lines in the country. By contrast, JR Hokkaido’s target for rural lines is 2000 passengers per day per kilometer. Operating expenses in 1998 on the Chihoku Line exceeded revenues by nearly 500 million yen. (Source: “Railway Operators in Japan 2,” by Shuichi Takashima, Japan Railway and Transport Review, September 2001.) Despite strong support from the communities it serves, including over 160 high school students who ride it every school day, the Chihoku Line announced its closure last March.

Since learning of the line’s imminent demise two months ago, I had been plotting ways of getting there. When I found out that Maureen’s musical rehearsal in April was only half an hour from the line, I had my chance. I contacted Dustin, an American teacher in Muroran who has admitted a certain interest in Japanese railways. I’m working to further corrupt him, and thought this to be an excellent opportunity. He had an office party on Friday evening, but was free for the rest of the weekend. “Do you mind leaving really early on Saturday?” I asked. He didn’t mind at all. He even convinced Judy, a British teacher also in Muroran, to tag along.

At 3:45am on Saturday, the three of us were abruptly roused by all three of Dustin’s well-synchronized alarm clocks going off at exactly the same time. We were pulling out of the driveway within 25 minutes, and were only a little disturbed to see a man out walking his dog at that hour. A fabulous sunrise on the highway near Tomakomai gave us all a good feeling about the trip.

There seems to be a certain Japanese – or, perhaps human – fascination with closures, abandonments, last runs, and all layings to rest of the works of men. The station agent at Ikeda, the southern terminus of the Chihoku Line, opened the train for boarding half an hour prior to the scheduled 9:55 departure, a full twenty minutes earlier than usual. On this line that has ranked dead last in ridership nationwide for so many years, we could only find two seats open seats. Fifteen minutes before departure, it was standing room only. And still more passengers kept coming.

“You’d think they’d add another car,” Dustin said of the one-car train.

“It might be that they don’t have another car to add,” I replied.

The train pulled out right on time and began its three-hour run through the countryside. We stopped at nearly every station, the facilities ranging from forlorn wooden platforms without a building in site to modern, multi-story buildings that double as community centers in the towns they serve. The promotional literature on hand was quick to point out such good citizenship, but we could find nothing regarding whether the stations could remain opened without the support of the railway.

There were few if any passengers getting on or off at most stops, but nearly every platform had at least one photographer documenting the moment. Some had several. Midway through the run, Judy was shocked to notice that one man in a small, white SUV seemed to be following us, taking photos at one location then racing ahead of the train to another spot.

“Do you suppose he’ll follow us all the way to Kitami?” Judy asked in disbelief.

“And probably all the way back, too,” I returned.

“Is he crazy?” she quipped. “Who, in their right mind, goes flying around following a train all day?”

“Well, me, for one, if I had a car,” I replied without the sheepishness that usually accompanies such a response. For once, my way of thinking was the majority.

Returning on the southbound train that afternoon, we managed to secure three seats together by rushing the platform the moment boarding was announced. The train was just as full, if not a little more so, and we found a middle-aged Japanese man standing in the aisle beside us. He introduced himself, in very good English, as Go Yukawa and struck up a conversation.

“Where are you from?” we asked him.

“Yokohama, near Tokyo.”

“You came all the way from Yokohama just to ride this train?” Judy’s mouth stood agape.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I chided her.

“Well, I think I’m beginning to get it, but it still astonishes me.”

Returning to our Japanese friend, I asked, “How long are you staying here?”

“I flew up from Tokyo this morning. I fly home tonight.”

“You must like trains!” Even I had trouble hiding my shock over that.

“Yes,” he agreed. “And you?”

“Oh yes, very much.”

“I was hoping to take lots of photos today,” he said, pointing to my camera, “but it is too crowded. I come here to memorize this run, memorize this railway…but all I memorize is too many people.”

At the end of the run, back at Ikeda, we rushed to the front of the train with Yukawa-san to take photos in the four minutes before his connecting train left for Obihiro. We lingered for a bit in the sunset light after most of the other passengers had left, and drove a bit north into the countryside to watch the next northbound roll off into the fading light and explore Samamai, the first station north of Ikeda and number 72 on the hikyoh eki list.

“Obihiro is well-known for their butadon,” Dustin told us as we entered the city.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Grilled pork over rice. It’s very good.”

“That sounds great to me. I’d love to find an out-of-the-way, local place to eat dinner.”

“Hey! I think that place right there had a sign for butadon,” he exclaimed, pointing over his right shoulder.

I couldn’t see anything even resembling a restaurant, but he turned around and pulled into a wooden shack with a small sign out front. Inside, we found a single table and a small bar in front of the kitchen area, which appeared to be in front of the owners’ living quarters. A smiling, wrinkled woman brought us steaming bowls of grilled pork over rice in a sauce that was delicious beyond words. She gave us tea and miso soup free of charge, then took our photo with a small Polaroid camera, which she added to her guestbook that Dustin signed for all three of us (the joke at Dustin’s school is that his Japanese is better than all the Japanese teachers in the English department – and it’s only a half-joke).

We followed a steaming creek up to an onsen where we soaked with a night view of Obihiro, then enjoyed free lodging generously provided by Maureen’s musical group. We also had Sunday morning free while the performers rehearsed. I was thinking of how I’d like to return to the railway and take some more photos, but decided I’d better not push Dustin and especially Judy too far.

As we piled into his car, he turned and asked what we wanted to do.

“You’re driving,” I told him.

“I’m just along for the ride,” Judy added.

“Well, I was thinking I might like to go back and get some photos of the stations on the railway.”

“That sounds fine to me!” I replied, trying unsuccessfully to conceal my enthusiasm.

“I’ve come this far with you crazy guys,” Judy said. “I might as well get the full experience.”

After visiting several of the nearby stations and even photographing a pair of trains, we found ourselves at the Ashoro station wondering where to go next. There was time to explore Obihiro, or time to explore more of the railway, but not time to do both.

“Do you want to find your station?” Dustin asked.

As part of the Galaxy theme, the railway has labeled certain stations with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Despite the crowds, I had managed to snap photos of the signs at Dustin’s and Judy’s stations on the previous day, but had missed my own.

“It’s a quite bit further north,” I replied. “We don’t have to find it. I just want to buy a key chain here, and you guys can decide where we’re going next.”

Judy was the first to speak when I returned from making my purchase.

“We’ve been talking,” she told me, very matter-of-factly, “and we’ve decided that we need to go find your station.”

I beamed. “I love you guys!”

My station, Aeries, was Kamitoshibetsu, a log structure in a sawmill town where an old siding once used to load lumber onto flatcars now rusted in the weeds between the station and the mill. I couldn’t have been happier.

There was another hikyoh eki nearby, and Dustin endeavored to find it. Along the way, we crossed a stream on a road bridge parallel to a bridge on the railway. Looking at the railway bridge, Judy exclaimed, “Oh, that would be a nice shot, right there!”

I glanced at the timetable but said nothing.

Dustin found Sasamori station, number 30 on the list, near the end of a dirt road with absolutely nothing else around. It is served by nine trains daily, five one way and four the other, and none of us could figure out why.

Looking at the schedule posted on the simple wooden platform, I remarked, “There’s a northbound coming soon.”

Dustin glanced at his watch. “We probably should start heading back.”

“C’mon! It’s only twelve minutes.”

Dustin looked at Judy.

“Let’s get the man his shot!” she returned. “You’ll share the photo, won’t you?”


“Okay,” Dustin agreed. “Where do you want it?”

“Either here or back at that bridge.”

“Oh, the bridge is a better shot.” Judy made the decision.

As the single car rolled across the bridge and into history, I wished that Yukawa-san could have been with us. Not on the crowded trains, but out here in the towns and countryside along the line, did I fix my memories of the Chihoku Line.

We returned to the musical rehearsal just in time for me to get some photos of the cast teaching one of their dances to several local kids, and thereby earn at least a little of our free lodging from the night before. When they were finished, we found Maureen, loaded her and her stuff into the car with us and all of our stuff, and chased the setting sun back towards Muroran.

“So where are we going for our next trip?” Dustin asked me on the drive home.

“Well, I’ve been thinking of riding length of the Hidaka line sometime.”

“Oh, that would be nice!”

“Where’s that?” Judy asked tentatively.

“It runs southeast from Tomakomai right along the coast. Ocean on one side, horse farms on the other.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she began, “but let me know when you’re going. I just might want to tag along.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

David Plowden

One of my favorite photographers is David Plowden, who has been exposing 2-1/4 inch square B&W negatives for about half a century. A love of trains, particularly steam locomotives, is what first made Plowden pick up a camera. Once the steam locomotives were gone from North America, he largely stopped photographing trains, but he by no means stopped photographing. He turned his attention instead to all things America, particularly where ever the hand of man was at work. From the steelmills of Gary, Indiana to the grain elevators of eastern Washington to small towns across the country, Plowden has created an artistic documentation of American life, often of the vanishing variety. His square-format photos use simple, straight-forward compositions emphasizing lines and patterns to convey powerful messages, sometimes of what is there, sometimes of what isn't. I've been thinking a lot about his photos recently as I've been trying to photograph the industrial landscape of Muroran and the small towns of Hokkaido.

Though in his seventies, Plowden's work is by no means finished. His latest book, A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America, is due out next month. Check out his website,, for more information and to see some of his photos.

Plowden was also a man who knew when to put the camera down. He did just that on a night in the late 1950s while riding in the cab of one of the last steam-powered trains on the Great Northern Railway. His recollection of that night ride, published in the introduction to A Time of Trains, is one of my favorite pieces of railroad writing.

"Out on the prairie in the night, all the way to the outskirts of Minneapolis, the world was ours. The night, the stars, the 2505, the whistle and Brown were all that mattered. We were The Fast Mail, The Midnight Special, and all those night trains whose whistles stir the imaginations of those who hear their incantations."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Yubari Coal

Train travel in Japan is expensive, and there’s simply no getting around that. There are, however, a few ways to soften the blows. One is the “seishun juhachi kippu,” which literally means “student 18 ticket.” Despite the name, anyone can buy one, whether student or salaryman, Japanese or foreigner. For 11,500 yen (about $100US at the current exchange rate), you get a pass that is good for unlimited local train travel on any five days during school holiday periods. More than one person can use the pass, and it need not be used on consecutive days. The three yearly school holiday periods for which it is good are mid-December to mid-January, early March to mid-April, and late July to early September.

I bought a pass for this spring period and quickly got more than my money’s worth when Maureen and I used it to travel to and from the HAJET meeting in Furano. That cost us a total of four days (one each to go and come back), or 9200 yen. Bought at normal prices, the same four local tickets would have cost us 16,800 yen. There’s a catch, though, and that catch is time. The seishun juhachi kippu is not the way to travel if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. The 240-km journey to Furano takes six hours by local train, a blistering pace of 40 km, or 25 miles, per hour. But if you have the time, and enjoy traveling for the sake of travel, then it’s a hard deal to beat. The trains stop at every station, the slower pace gives you time to take in the countryside, and you’ll see everyone from high school students in their black uniforms to tiny, hunched-over grandmothers with shopping bags riding the local trains. Indeed, when I toured eastern Hokkaido in early February on a rail pass that was good for travel on all trains, including the high-speed expresses, I often found myself looking for a local train.

That trip to Furano still left me with one day on my pass, and with the spring travel period expiring after this weekend, I needed a good way to use it. I had considered a trip over length of the Hidaka Line on the island’s south-central coast, but at the last minute decided instead to go to Yubari. I went there and back yesterday, a trip that would have cost me 5460 yen at regular fare. In total, I got 22,260 yen worth of travel for my 11,500 yen seishun juhachi kippu.

A little about my destination: Yubari is a city in the mountains of central Hokkaido. It’s home to a modern ski resort and luxurious spa hotel, a small amusement park, the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in late February, and some of the finest melons grown anywhere in Japan. None of those, of course, were this eccentric traveler’s reason for going. I went to see the Yubari Coal Mining Museum. It was that underground black stuff that brought the city to prominence long before visiting Japanese tourists began shelling out $100 and more for a single cantaloupe. (Don’t believe that? Check out

The American Lyman Monroe, hired by the Japanese to survey the coal deposits of Hokkaido, discovered coal in the mountains around what would become Yubari in 1888. Monroe found three separate coal beds with thicknesses averaging three to five meters and as large as seven meters. (By contrast, many coal seams in my native West Virginia, which boasts the second-highest coal production in America, are only one to two meters thick.) The first mine at Yubari opened in 1890, and the remote valley swelled to a population of over 50,000 by the time the first national Japanese census was conducted in 1920. The region continued to expand as mining activity increased, first to fuel the Japanese war machine for their Pacific theater of the 30s and 40s, and then to feed the national recovery effort that followed. Yubari achieved the status of city in 1943, and the population peaked at 116,908 in 1960. In that year, the region produced over three million tons of coal at 17 mines. Production peaked four years later at four million tons.

And then the Japanese government cut the floor out from under its coal industry. Realizing that cheaper coal could be imported from neighbors Australia and China, combined with an energy policy shift toward oil, the national government began sweeping demand away from Hokkaido mines. By 1975, the population of Yubari had dropped by more than half to 50,000, while coal production had fallen even more sharply to one million tons, with only five mines still opened. The last one closed in 1990, even with a seam of coal taller than me still exposed at the valley floor.

Today the population is just over 13,000, and judging from the size and glitter of the hotel beside the train station, it’s not difficult to guess where most of them work. What was difficult for me to guess was just exactly where this coal museum might be. I wasn’t able to find a map online, but I imagined a large train station in Yubari with a map and tourist information. Maybe even in English. That seemed reasonable for a place that makes its living on tourism.

What I learned yesterday, though, is that most of those tourists don’t come by train. Yubari is located at the end of a single-track branch, 16.1 kilometers from a junction with the Sekisho mainline. And by single track, I mean single track. From the mainline junction to the end of track, there is not so much as one siding. Service is provided by one-car diesel railcars, which simply run to the end of the line, stop, reverse direction, and head back down the valley. Not so long ago, there was a several-track yard in Yubari, where long trains of loaded coal hoppers once departed a few times daily. Today, the tracks don’t even make it to the site of that yard and original station (which has been preserved, albeit without tracks). They stop about two kilometers short, at a tiny new station in front of that spa hotel and ski resort. I didn’t know any of that when I arrived, though.

My first indication that my plans might be flawed came when I stepped off the train and the driver asked to see my pass. That meant that there was no agent waiting inside the station to check my ticket. In fact, there was no one in the one-room station at all, save the four other passengers exiting the train with me, and one old woman waiting to board. Neither were there racks of brochures nor an English map of the city. My internal navigational system told me that I hadn’t passed the mining museum yet, so I started walking further up the valley, through a quiet downtown filled with closed businesses and colorful movie billboards from the film festival.

Fortunately, my internal navigational system was working a little better than it did for my interview in Shin-Sapporo, though it required a good bit of faith on my part. Only after walking all the way through downtown, past the highway garage and past something that looked like a school, did I finally arrive at the mining museum. I knew I was at the right place when I spotted the 50-ft high orange headhouse rigging.

The woman at the front desk didn’t speak English, but she called over a young male co-worker from another part of the museum who spoke a little.

“This museum costs 800 yen,” he helpfully explained. I knew that much, but I have learned the best way to get help in my native tongue here is to play the part of totally clueless. Not that I have to try very hard to pull that off.

He then gave a very detailed explanation of what route to follow through the museum, even though the big arrows on the floors and walls made that pretty clear. He seemed quite concerned when he came to the part that the exit of the museum was located some distance from the entrance, and that it would require walking back to my car in the parking lot outside since the shuttle bus doesn’t run in the winter.

“That’s okay,” I explained, “I don’t have a car.”

“Oh!” he was shocked. “How did you come?”

“By train, then walking.”

More shocked looks, both from him and the woman as he explained to her what I had just said. There followed a mad rummaging of papers behind her desk, him entreating my patience until they found what it was they were looking for.

What they were looking for was the train schedule.

“The next train leaves Yubari at 16:22,” he explained with no small amount of consternation, pointing to the schedule.

It was just after 13:00, so it seemed I would have plenty of time to see the museum. Besides, there were trains at 18:17 and 19:24, too, if I wanted more time. Trying to reassure him, I pointed these out on the schedule.

“I don’t mind taking a later train if I need more time.”

That really threw him for a loop.

“No, no! You have plenty of time. You might spend one hour, maybe one and a half hours at most, in this museum.”

Apparently he was afraid I’d get bored waiting for that next train. Or maybe he didn’t want me to see anything of the town beyond the museum. I tried to reassure him.

“I might want to get some dinner before leaving.” That didn’t seem to help.

Finally, and mostly to appease them, I paid an extra 100 yen on top of the mining museum’s 800 yen admission for a combined ticket that included the “Lifestyle” museum beside the exit to the mining museum. Thanking them, I followed their pointing hands to the museum entrance, carrying the one useful thing they had given me, an English “Guide Book of the Yubari Coal Mine Museum.”

That book proved essential, since the museum displays were only in Japanese. The guidebook didn’t correspond very well to the exhibits, but it provided enough information to give me some idea of what I was seeing.

The museum itself was quite good, beginning with a ground-floor exhibit of the metasequoia trees that grew on Hokkaido, were buried in volcanic eruptions or mudslides, and compacted over ten million years to form the thick seams of Yubari coal. The metasequoia wasn’t the only “coal tree” exhibited in the museum. Upstairs, in the second floor exhibit of coal and its uses, was a cartoon painting of a big, leafy tree with large lumps of coal lying at its base. Two children pointed gaily at the coal, while up in the branches, small pictures depicted the many uses of coal. The cartoon occupied an entire wall, and is remarkable to me, because, if I read the “Engrish” guidebook correctly, it once appeared on the textbooks of all Japanese school children.

The remainder of the second floor focused on the more local history of coalmining in Hokkaido, including several large, black & white photos of miners. The most striking was a poster-sized enlargement showing a naked miner scrubbing himself in the employee bathing room. His body was mostly clean, but his face was still coal-black.

More hints to the hard life of the mines came from the guidebook. Given what I've heard about Japanese tendancies to cover-up ugly pieces of history, I was surprised to find a section entitled, "The compulsory labor period of the world war II." It explained how during the war, with so many of their men off fighting, the Japanese brought Koreans and Chinese to Hokkaido and forced them work in the mines. The wording was careful, despite the awkward grammer of the translation, but it could not hide vestiges of cruelty: "The many compulsory workers distributed to sites inside shafts that wasted by the defect of material and impossible production, forced to be engaged in dangerous works under the severe guard."

At the end of the second floor, I boarded an elevator to take me to the rest of the museum on the basement level. Light and sound effects helped give the impression that I was riding several hundred feet below the surface, instead of just a few dozen. It was chilly when I stepped out, the constant, dank coolness of underground. The floors, walls and ceiling were dark and the lighting was sparse, coming only from widely spaced incandescent bulbs. Dioramas depicted the various stages of labor and mechanization in the mines. The earliest miners, of the 1890s, wore only light clothing with sandals of rope on their feet. A model of a female miner stood with one of those practically bare feet in a pile of coal lumps as she wielded a pick-ax in her hands. Later miners wore safety boots, hardhats and respirators, and dug into the coal with big drilling machines. In that section, motion sensors detected my presence and set into motion several machines and conveyor belts, creating a pounding, mechanic din in the otherwise deserted hallway. I shuddered at trying to imagine eight hours every day of listening to that.

From there, I donned a hardhat and headlamp, and stepped into a preserved mining shaft for the conclusion of the museum. More motion sensors switched single bulbs off and on as I passed, keeping the tunnels in front of and behind me quite dark. I walked beside replicas of the gigantic electric cables that were once strung all throughout the mountain tunnels of Yubari, beside dripping water and on springy wooden floorboards that compressed under each step. I often had to duck to keep from hitting my head on the lighting fixtures dangling from the log-lined ceiling, which I imagine was higher than most of the tunnels. More displays showed various mining techniques, and then around another dark corner, a white glow came down from above, which I followed up a sloping ramp to daylight.

The English-speaking guide was waiting for me when I got there, and he directed me into the “Lifestyle” museum. The most impressive display there was a scale model of Yubari in its busiest mining days, its hills lined by miners’ housing. Overhead lighting simulated the passing of a day, complete with red sunset, while the tiny buildings glowed warmly with nightfall. I’d read about those houses in my guidebook:

“Coalminer’s houses were divided into two classes also. The houses for staffs were constructed at the place in comparatively better environment; many of them were wide and had each bathroom. On the other hand, the houses for mining workers were constructed closely along the slope of the valley, one house was for 10 families or 20 families, bath, water supply and lavatory were common, these were different from houses for staffs clearly.”

The most poignant exhibit was upstairs, which displayed the living quarters of one miner and his family. Each family occupied one room, approximately 12 x 15 feet, in one of those 10- or 20-family houses. That space was their living room, kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The exhibit home was brightly lit and clean, but the walls were papered in newsprint and there was no hiding the close quarters for the family of four.

While taking this in, the English-speaking guide came up from below, tentatively sidled over, handed me a slip of paper, and disappeared without a word. On the paper, “The train leaves Yubari station at 16:22.” I looked at my watch. It was just after 15:00. I had stayed nearly two hours, which was apparently enough to make them nervous.

I took my time walking the quiet streets back to the station, taking photos along the way, especially after the sun came out. I arrived just in time to catch the 16:22 train, but instead of getting on, I watched it pull out of the station, and then setoff down the valley on foot to find dinner. The entire narrow valley was quite developed, as I had seen from my ride into town on the train, and I expected to have my choice of several eateries. It took me over a kilometer to find one, and it was closed. I passed the next station on the railway and still found nothing to eat, not even a red banner with the vertical katakana spelling of “ramen” that seems to show up on about every other corner. After three and a half kilometers down the main road, I came to my first opened restaurant. The staff didn’t speak much English and didn’t have an English menu, but after a few minutes I managed to order their chicken dinner set, which included tea, soup, rice, and a plate of sliced, raw chicken that I cooked myself at the gas grill in the center of my table. They also served ice cream, which was incredibly tempting, but I decided to pass and try to make the 18:17 train, which I barely caught after a brisk, uphill walk to the nearest station.

As the train glided down the dark valley under a dusk-blue sky, I tried to sort out my complicated thoughts on coal mining, an industry I’ve grown to simultaneously love and hate from watching coal trains in the narrow valleys of my native West Virginia, where the mines still hum to the tune of 150 million tons annually. There are some ugly stories there, from the labor wars that began in the 1920s, to the 12 men who died at a mine near Buckhannon in the first week of this year, to the scarred landscape being created in the wake of modern surface mining methods. Hokkaido might be lucky that its coal industry died before 20-story draglines could start taking 100-ton bites out of its mountains. Yet the empty houses and closed shops of Yubari tell their side of the story, too: even a healthy tourism industry can support only a fraction of the people that labor-intensive mining can.

Of course, like other developed countries, if Japan still had a coal industry, it wouldn’t be labor-intensive. But the mining jobs that remained would require skilled labor and thus carry wages that I have to imagine would be substantially higher than those paid to the service staff at the Mt. Racey ski lodge. And they would certainly be higher than those paid to the Chinese miners who now meet some part of Japan’s demand for coal. See page 98 of the March 2006 National Geographic for proof of that. And see pages 106-7 for the landscape that mountain top mining is creating in West Virginia.

The thing is, Japan still wants coal. It still gets coal, even though its citizens don’t have to go down underground and dig it, and its mountains don’t get ravaged in the extraction of it. But someone’s citizens, and someone’s mountains, do. Japan just doesn’t have to think about it, or at least not so much. Neither does a lot of folks in West Virginia, for that matter, where thick deciduous forests, carefully planned mine site locations, and plenty of “No Trespassing” signs keep the destruction out of site (and, hence, out of mind) for all but the most inquisitive or most affected.

I like coal, at least when it’s the cause of the long trains rolling through mountain valleys that I like to photograph. There’s an excellent chance that you like coal, too, whether you realize it or not. If you’re reading this from a computer in the States, there’s a 50% chance it’s because some coal is going up in flames at a generating station this very moment. But it goes at a price, a price that might not be completely covered by your monthly electric bill, and that’s to say nothing of the potential effects of the CO2 it pumps into the atmosphere. So think about that the next time you log on, or cool off in the AC, or pop in a DVD, or recharge your cell phone. I’ll be thinking about that, too, and adding to the equation my love for West Virginia coal trains, and the mountains they thread. And now I’ll also think about the black-faced miners of Hokkaido wearing rope sandals a hundred years ago, and the Yubari kids of today working the counter at the spa or moving to Sapporo because there aren’t any other jobs for them. And I’ll still be wondering.